Road trip gone bad: Not quite making it to Baja in my Westy



Or you could buy a Toyota.


or try a subaru swap, still a can of worms, but bound to be more reliable.

bad luck at every turn, yet still makes for a good yarn.


Hmmm … jealousy? You’ll notice that once the threat of a romantic get-away with your girlfriend was past, she started running fine again.


Great story. My wife and I drove our 91 Weekender all over the west, getting it up to 240K on the original engine, but with school debt keeping me from sinking another $8-10K into it, we recently donated it our local public radio station. The week after the donation was completed, I met a guy who does subaru swaps and we 4 wheeled in his Syncro Westie down in Moab. I was really regretting my donation and thinking about getting back into the Vanagon market until his transmission separated from the engine, leaving him stranded for the next week and many dollars poorer. Vanagons are great until they’re not. Still have tons of great memories of camping, driving, raising our kids in that van.


It is really just that, a string of bad luck. A failure to be really forward thinking on my part and realize the VW would be very low on gas at the end of a run up that hill. With the thermostat going, which I think it was, the bus was likely burning more gas than it should and producing slightly less power.

I think the T-Stat was failing for a while because I had not seen the van warm up to full pointing right at the LED heat on the temperature indicator in a few weeks. It always seemed to warm up slowly and not want to run at full warm, always 15-20% below it. When I removed the old, broke thermostat I saw it was stamped 80C which tells me it is not the factory spec 87C t-stat. It opens 7def C cooler than the factory wants. A prior owner must have done this, which confuses me a bit, but it does help Vanagons in really warm places. My Van comes to California via Colorado. I do not know when it’d have been a good idea. Perhaps my mechanic put it in to ensure the van never overheated? GoWesty is famously bad about their melt tabs and the warranty. I think the bus is slightly more fuel efficient running the 87C t-stat but I’m only 1 tank in…

Anyways, SECOND reason I think it was failing is that it used to get up to the middle/correct temp point when driving in city traffic all the time, but I hadn’t seen that in a few weeks. It was getting up much higher, however than when it was broken wide open. That was just into the safe operating temp and never climbed unless we were in warmer weather.

When it failed catastrophically I was amazed tho. An engine running too cold is really a pig. I used to think colder was “better” but really “correctly calculated operating temperature for optimum efficiency” is what you want. The car was spitting black sludge out exhaust at its worst as the fuel computer clearly said 'We’re too cold, open the choke to warm it up." and the thermostat said “we’re too hot, cool it down as fast as you can.” At 70F ambient it was running mostly ok. at 45F ambient the engine would flood at around ¾ throttle and you’d feel like the transmission was slipping. It was the engine slowing down. You’d lose RPMs at full throttle and gain them back around 2/3rds.

Fun field lessons in VW engine operating temperatures.


I have zero experience with water-cooled VW engines, and limited experience with air-cooled ones. (I’m mostly a Ford guy, to be honest, but I’ve dealt with a '65 Ghia, '73 Bus, and '74 Super Beetle at various points in the 90s.) Do you think an old air-cooled bus might be simpler and give you fewer (if more frequent and possibly slightly more predictable) problems?

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I had a friend with a VW Transporter. One time it dumped all its oil over a friend’s driveway. He eventually destroyed it when he took it out for a track day for some bizarre reason.

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I have considered it. I am an old air cooled guy as well. 1955 pre-A Porsche 356 Speedster, 1970 VW Slapstick Bug, 1975 BMW R75/6. Even my modern 2013 Triumph Scrambler is “air cooled” (it just has a oil cooler where the water cooler would be.) Even the 911 comes from this lineage.

I think air cooled is simpler but the difference in drivability of the cars is immense. The Vanagon is far, far superior (and ugly.)

Normal operating conditions and my 2.3L GoWesty waterboxer with the AT let me hold 72-75mph on most freeways and most inclines. I slow down up really big monsters, like going over the Sierra Nevada. No way an air-cooled will do that.

(I no longer have the bug or the speedster. I miss both frequently. The bug less often :slight_smile: )

Once on a trip my thermostat seized closed, preventing hot coolant from reaching the radiator in my '91 Corolla and risking serious overheating. With no auto parts stores in walking distance, I removed the stuck t-stat on the side of the road. The housing would still seal fine without a thermostat present, luckily.

Driving with a cold engine on an already slow car sucks, that’s for sure. I drove without a thermostat for a week, suffering decrease power and efficiency.

In hindsight, I should have blocked off most of the radiator with cardboard until I had time to install the replacement.

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VW pride is a strange thing, especially post air-cooled era. In my '84 Golf, nothing to do with accelerating*, stopping, or steering ever failed me.

Unfortunately, everything else did.

When I finally sold it (for $300), the rear doors hadn’t opened in a decade, AC condensation mainly dribbled out of the the holes I drilled in the floorpan for that specific purpose, and the only functioning lock was the drivers side, but only from the inside of the car. The passenger side never opened from the outside, so locking up meant getting out, opening the hatch, crawling in enough to lock the driver’s side door, and then back out.

The speedometer hadn’t worked in ages and nearly all the interior lights failed. This meant that at night, I judged speed based on the pitch of the engine resulting in having to pick between listening to music or risking a ticket because I didn’t know how fast I was going. Sometimes, the decision was made for me by the tape deck, which would add this really shrill scraping noise that could occasionally be “fixed” by hitting the top of the dash.

I had no regrets watching it get driven off by its next owner/sucker, and would roll my eyes whenever a VW enthusiast said anything about “reliability”.

Fast forward to today: I’m thinking seriously about picking up an old Corrado as my midlife crisis car.

  • Technically related to accelerating: the reverse blockout plate was broken, meaning you could shift into reverse without depressing the gearshift. Effectively, this made reverse and first look and feel identical. I could usually tell it was in reverse by honking and yelling as the car behind me saw the reverse lights come on…

This article gave me flashbacks but not the good kind. I had an '82 diesel, watercooled wanagon. 53 mph top speed with a tail wind. Aerodynamic as a brick and handled like one. I took it to WV on a kayaking trip and arrived about 3 hours after everyone else, not bad considering It was a 4 hour trip for them (don’t talk to me about hills, please, it’s too painful). I endured an electrical fire which burned out all of my gauges and lights, inside and out. However, the fire extinguisher residue made a nice billowy cloud when the wind would blow through the open windows.Every trip to the mechanic was $500 to start. The parts were hard to get and expensive when you could find them.After the fuel tank spontaneously let loose all over my garage floor, that was it. This thing wasn’t even house-broken.
I called Goodwill or somebody and donated that bitch and took a deduction that would make an accountant say “hmmmm”

Never again, Adolph. Never again.

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Yeah, my impression was that those little ~1600cc engines are spiffy for tootling around in a Bug or Thing or Ghia, but it’s kinda asking too much to have them shove around a Transporter when the only mechanical advantage they get is shorter gears which limits one’s speed to the double nickel (if one doesn’t want to risk overheating and splitting the case, like I did on a memorable Colorado afternoon).

I used to have a 1968 F250 Camper Special topped with an even older '63 camper, and boy that was fun to camp in. Sleeping room for six (if three of them were short), sink, fridge, stove, oven, flush terlet, dual batteries, air conditioning, the works. But the problem was the drivetrain: a 360 big block (essentially a 390 FE with a destroked crank) mated to a C6 tranny and 4.10 gears in a Dana 44 rear end. Adequate power (though I really missed that 390 crank), but holy shit the thing got 6 mpg, downhill with a tailwind. The three (!) fuel tanks added up to nearly 60 gallons, so it had a 350 mile range, but once gas topped $3 a gallon, that truck’s camping days were over. At least, when it came to long-range trips, it became extremely cost-prohibitive. Camping should be cheap fun, but taking that rig down to the Cuyamaca Mountains in eastern San Diego County started to cost in excess of $200 in fuel alone. Eventually my wife persuaded me to get rid of it, but I seriously considered an engine/transmission swap. The easiest way would have been to get a mid-90s 5.8 liter truck engine with overdrive transmission out of a reasonably gently-used F150, and all I would have needed would have been a couple of 351W motor mounts (available online) and a new driveshaft, plus a reasonably cheap trip to a muffler shop for exhaust (and no smog!!!). With that I could have doubled my mileage and starting reliability, slightly improved my power output, and kept the thing useful. I regret that I got rid of the truck instead, though I don’t really have the free time a good engine swap would demand anymore. (Putting that '93 Caprice’s 350 into my '87 XJ6 took two full days of work, plus a few hours here and there dealing with minor odds and ends, and I think the truck would have required a similar commitment.)

Anyway, I know you’re hampered by the smog requirements of the later-model Westy, but maybe there’s a doable swap that might allow you to enjoy the VW camping experience without putting up with the headaches inherent in an underpowered mid-1980s European four-banger engine. I, for one, wouldn’t hesitate to try putting a Prius drivetrain into my 1970 Cougar if the alternative were not being able to drive my beloved car again. I might wait until used Teslas start filling up the junkyards, however. :wink: Yeah, like I’ll live to see that day.


Nostalgia and loyalty are sometimes fine things, but in the end you want your vehicle to be nice back to you. So, this.

I have a Subaru 2.2 in my 1987 Syncro and it’s been incredibly powerful and dead reliable, even with a few coast to coast runs, occasional commuting, and lots of sitting in between.

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I would spend every available cent I own on a VW California with the 6-speed manual turbo diesel 4-motion if VW USA ever came to their senses. I would honestly sell both my '71 Westfalia and my daily-driver Scoobie for the down-payment.

(I could be that pasty chubby guy wondering why there’s a surfboard near my tailgate when I’m 4.5 hours from the closest ocean)

Car marque loyalty seems to be a family thing. Grow up with a certain brand and you’ll swear it’s excellent. I’ve known a few families that were loyal to VW and their cars were always falling apart. I had an ex-GF whose “cute” Beetle caught fire more than once. Horrible vehicle, leaned terribly on corners and the bodywork seemed to abrade various rubber components to disastrous effect. German reliability ended in the early 1980s with Mercedes, as far as I can tell. It seems like Volkswagens, Audis and BMWs were NEVER reliable.

Luckily my father drove company cars when I was growing up, so we had experience with a few brands and the Toyotas were empirically proved to be the most reliable. His last Camry got about 700,000km on it without much fuss before it was sold.

In my family, we do swear a lot about our cars… but in a different way. :wink: My Dad and I are amateur mechanics, and never harbored many illusions about the craptastic cars we drove. I’ve owned three Hondas, three Toyotas, four Fords, two Mercurys, a Jaguar, a Chevy, a Subaru, a Volvo, a VW, a Pontiac, and a Buick, and though I can objectively say that the Toyotas were the best when it came to reliable transportation, I still like driving and working on the Fords the most. And not because they’re particularly good. Of their 60s-70s vintage, the Mopars were generally faster, and the Chevys were better-built and easier/cheaper to work on. My pal Tom was the Mopar guy; he had a '70 Plymouth Road Runner. My buddy Justin was the Chevy guy; he had a '72 Camaro. I was the Ford guy with the '70 Cougar, and two decades later, somehow I’m the only one who still owns his musclecar.

My Dad, born in 1937, somehow had owned over 300 cars by the time I was born (never more than one or two at a time). He says he’s always been partial to Chevys, though he hasn’t owned one since he sold his 1952 3100 pickup back in 1978. Since then he’s owned two F150s, four Tauruses, and a Windstar… in fact, nothing but Fords from 1983 until he sold his last Taurus and bought a Kia Soul last fall. It wasn’t because he particularly loved Fords.

It’s more a case of “The Devil You Know.”

Grew up with Toyotas. Reliable, dependable, dull.

Never bought one myself. Never even considered it. Had a Vauxhall, Peugeot (loved it, hated the extortionate and frequent repair bills). Ford, Honda, Mini and about a million hire cars. Never bought two cars from any manufacturer. And nothing old. I’m definitely on the software end of engineering.

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